Disappointed by the Hokusai exhibition: close examination of a book would be better

The Hokusai exhibition at the British Museum was too crowded to be enjoyable. It was a dramatic contrast to the last exhibition I visited at the British Museum–on modern American prints–which I thought just about the best designed exhibition I’d ever been too. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/american-dream-the-best-designed-exhibition-ive-ever-been-to/

I appreciate the dilemma of the museum. They want to let as many people as possible see the exhibition, and they need the money. So the temptation is to let as many people as possible into the exhibition, but the result is a miserable experience for everybody: queueing to glimpse a picture; too far away from the captions to be able to read them, and feeling uncomfortable about taking any time because of obliging others to wait.

Many of the pictures were small, and I wondered, ironically, whether much was gained beyond looking at them in a book–because they were almost all flat, you couldn’t see the texture of the paint. Indeed, sitting quietly and slowly examining a book of high-quality reproductions and being able to follow his story, philosophy, and development would have been a superior experience. Little seemed to be gained by being in contact with originals and much was lost because of the crowds. I reflected too that on a rainy morning in February I could go up to the room of Japanese prints and study pictures by Hokusai without anybody else being there at all. I must do that.

Some of the failure was my fault, I must confess. I went on the last day and missed all the opportunities for members only to visit the exhibition.

And I did see some pictures I appreciated and learnt something bout Hokusai, not least that he went under five different names. He lived into his 90th year and was convinced that he became a better artist with every year he aged. He worked until the very end of his life and seemed to think that if he could make it to a hundred he would lean much that was hidden and achieve a kind of immortality. Mount Fuji symbolised that immortality.

But sadly I couldn’t enter the mind and world of the artist in the way that the best exhibitions allow you to do. Thumbs down, British Museum.




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